Irish filmmaker and musician John Carney knew he loved musicals, and he knew that he wanted to tackle the genre for his next project. His trouble was with the how. The auteur also astutely realized that the over-the-top, cheesecake style of the 1950s just wouldn’t fly on today’s movie screens. Thus, Carney gave himself the daunting task of modernizing the musical for the 21st century. With his simple yet effective film Once, Carney has crafted something that is better described as a postmodern musical; he has gone far enough away from the clichés of the genre to make something that is completely fresh, yet still undeniably cut from the same cloth.
Rocker Glen Hansard (last seen onscreen in 1991’s The Commitments, Hansard has been all over Europe with his successful band the Frames for the past 17 years) stars as the unnamed “guy,” a street musician in Dublin with a powerful set of tunes and an even more powerful sadness in his heart over a lost love. One day, he has a chance encounter with the unidentified “girl” (refreshingly portrayed by Hansard’s sometime real-life musical collaborator Markéta Irglová), a Czech immigrant who befriends the singer-songwriter and surprisingly turns out some quality performances at the piano herself. Together, the two push each other to re-ignite their respective cooled romances while collaborating on a small batch of tunes for a demo that our guy will take with him to London in one week’s time.
Once eschews the traditional musical format by giving the stars a legitimate reason to burst into song. They are writing an album, after all, and it is these tunes that form the soundtrack, the lyric book and the backbone of the entire piece. Hansard’s skillful compositions evoke a folksy Radiohead vibe, and Irglová’s contributions further elevate the material with lilting back-up vocals and powerful mood swings.
While real-world information on the nature of the two’s relationship is hard to come by, we do know that they are actually friends and they did actually craft an album’s worth of songs around the same time Once was being filmed, many of which were used for this film. Carney utilizes these parallels, as well as a straightforward documentary filming style, to create a film that is particularly authentic. Once is imbued with countless realistic touches that only a musician can know (the head nod and the car test, to name a few), and the seasoned artists bring true and honest performances of the sort that were missing from the canned soundstages and overdubbed renditions of cinema’s earlier musicals.
Once even deftly sidesteps the usual genre shortcoming of predictability, since songwriting is something that most people outside of the musically inclined know nothing about. It also helps that the process is an intrinsically fascinating one; just how one person’s musical rough draft becomes an effective collaborative effort is really quite intriguing, like watching the various layers being added to an elaborate wedding cake. The fevered weeklong writing and recording session the pair undertake also provides a natural and engaging story line that, coupled with the concise running time, keeps interest high for the duration of the picture.
But, as with most musicals, there is a leap of faith required to truly enjoy Once. Audiences will have to look past the schmaltz, admittedly present in both the tunes that emanate from the speakers and the story that unfolds onscreen. But at the end of the day, all any blatant heartstring pulling accomplishes is to give Once an extra push into the genre that it so daringly reinvents; the cheesiest part of this film is nothing compared to anything that came from Rodgers and Hammerstein, after all.
By successfully reworking the musical, a genre which would seem to have no place in today’s cynical world of modern cinema, Carney and company have accomplished a true feat. Once is a near perfect little package of a film, proving that, even in the height of summer blockbuster season, the simplest stories are often the best ones to tell.
‘Once’ opens on Friday, June 8, at the Rialto Lakeside Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.
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